By Sophie Wenzlau
Approximately one third of the food produced for human consumption every year—roughly 1.3 billion tons—is lost or wasted in fields, grocery stores, and kitchens around the world, to the detriment of bank accounts and the environment. In addition to its moral implications, food waste leads to the unnecessary consumption of land, water, and energy resources, and contributes to environmental problems such as deforestation, water scarcity, and pollution.
Rotting food is also a significant source of methane emissions, which contribute to global climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is one of the most environmentally harmful greenhouse gases—twenty times more so than carbon dioxide.
In honor of World Environment Day, Nourishing the Planet recommends five low-tech ways to make use of the food hiding in the bottom of your refrigerator.
1. Freeze it. If you bought too many fruits, vegetables, or loaves of bread, consider tossing extras in the freezer. With minimal preparation, many foods can be stored at low temperatures for weeks or months at a time, and used as needed. To save soft fruit—such as berries, kiwi, and peaches—mix one cup of fruit with one teaspoon sugar, let stand until the juices release, transfer to a freezer-safe bag, squeeze out the air, and freeze for up to nine months. To save firmer fruit—such as apples and pears—simmer in a covered pot with a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of water, and a few tablespoons of sugar until just limp, then transfer to a container and freeze. For information on freezing bread, vegetables, and herbs, see this article on curbing food waste.
2. Dry it. Dehydration is one of the oldest and simplest methods of food preservation; dried foods keep well because their water content is low, which inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Though there are many ways to dry food, common methods include sun drying, air drying, oven drying, dehydrating, and smoking. If you have ever found yourself with an excess of quickly-wilting fresh herbs, drying is an easy way to save them for later. To dry less tender herbs—such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory, and parsley—simply tie them into small bundles and hang them to air dry, preferably indoors. To dry tender herbs with a higher moisture content—such as basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm, and mint—hang a small bunch inside a paper bag, close the top with a rubber band, and punch holes in the sides for ventilation. Place the bag in an area where air currents will circulate and allow to dry. For more information about drying, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s (NCHFP) website.
3. Can it. Canning—a method of preservation in which food is sealed in an airtight container—removes oxygen, destroys enzymes, and prevents the growth of undesirable bacteria in food, ultimately increasing shelf-life. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, and seafood can all be canned safely and easily at home with minimal effort and equipment. With the simplest method of canning—water bath canning—one need only fill a jar with the desired ingredient, add hot water or syrup, cover the jar with a lid, and boil it in an open pan of water until a seal forms under the lid, creating a vacuum in which bacteria will not thrive. See NCHFP for additional, detailed information about canning, or check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Complete Guide to Home Canning.
4. Pickle it. Pickling is the centuries-old process of preserving food by storing it in salt brine or vinegar, and is used to make foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and ceviche. Pickled food is made by the process of fermentation—in which the growth of “good” microorganisms is encouraged and that of spoilage-causing microorganisms prevented—a trait it shares with bread, yogurt, wine, beer, coffee, cheese, soy sauce, and other goods. Although the shelf-life of fermented foods is shorter than that of canned foods, which can last for years, fermentation is an effective way to preserve foods for a number of seasons. Check out pickling tips and recipes from the Old Farmer’s Almanac and NCHFP.
5. Salt it. The process of salting meat—also known as curing—draws out moisture from meat through osmosis, retarding the lifespan of microorganisms and extending the lifespan of the food. Often, the process of curing meat also involves the addition of nitrates, nitrite, or sugar. If you find yourself with an excess of beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, or poultry, consider curing and saving the meat for later consumption. For recipes and more information on cured meat production, check out NCHFP and honest-food.net. If the prospect of curing your own meat is too daunting, consider dehydrating it instead. This is the process by which jerky is made, and is less time consuming.
These preservation techniques are but a few ways that consumers can reduce their “foodprint,” a term coined by UNEP. There are other ways to prevent food waste, of course, techniques that include buying only what you need, eating seasonal produce, and cooking creatively. For more information about World Environment Day and the Think.Eat.Save. campaign, visit UNEP online.
Sophie Wenzlau is a Food and Agriculture Staff Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.